From outside, the building looks like it was abandoned years ago, with the torn and dirty curtains hanging at the door giving it a deserted feeling.
But as soon as you enter the Aftaab Theater, located in the heart of Kabul, you are swept up into a different world. Young men and women are busy rehearsing the classic play “The Miser” by French playwright Molière. Inside the large hall, a girl is rehearsing another play in which she pleads for her lover to leave as their union won’t be accepted in her culture.
The activity of the theater is a far cry from the daily turmoil and dangers these young people face outside these walls, which hide them from the prying eyes of outsiders – and the religious fundamentalists seeking to expand their reach and influence in Afghanistan.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Established in 2005, the Aftaab Theater provides a refuge and sense of liberation for young people seeking to carve out a future in a country where many feel out of control of their own lives. Those behind the rejuvenation of the theater hope that it can play a role in reviving the creative and artistic freedoms that fell victim to the dictates of Taliban rule.
Eighteen-year-old Wajma Bahar is the female protagonist in “Miser” and the youngest in the team. She says she attends school in the mornings, but spends the rest of the day rehearsing at the theater. She says she would like to make a career out of acting – no easy feat in a country where such ambitions among young women are frequently frowned upon.
“I know the difficulties I’m going to face, but I want to be an inspiration for other girls in Afghanistan” she says. “How long are we going to suffer in silence? Theater gives me space and opportunities to interact with different people and cultures and understand a world that the majority of women here are deprived of experiencing.”
Bahar lost her father when the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996. Her mother, a school teacher and a social worker, offers the only support she receives in this male-dominated society.
Shohra Sabahgi, an engineering student at Kabul University, says she is also passionate about theater. She says that at first it was difficult to convince her family that she should be allowed to join, and adds that even now she worries about fundamentalists who disapprove of what she is trying to do.
“The atmosphere out here isn’t favorable for such cultural activities,” she says. “But someone has to take the risk and the initiative.”
The theater has put on more than 50 shows not only in Afghanistan, but also in countries including France, Iran and India.
“Theater gives us cultural freedom, it broadens our mind and it’s the best form of entertainment in my country,” says Aftaab's managing director. “It’s a way of asserting our rights as an individual.”
Most of the performances are held at the university, in safe surroundings. Indeed, the theater has been so successful that a number of long-dormant theater groups in Kabul have slowly started to revive. A Russian-built open air theater on the outskirts of the city has finally begun to see some activity, including through an annual festival. But such events still aren’t widely advertised.
In Herat, in western Afghanistan, the Simorgh Film Association of Culture and Art is also defying the Taliban narrative, staging plays condemning the physical and cultural atrocities perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists.
Dominated by the minority Hazara community, which has been at the receiving end of much Taliban violence, the province dreads the return of the fundamentalists after the withdrawal of international troops.
“The Taliban has destroyed the country. In the name of religion they have suppressed us, denied us our freedom,” says Monirei Hashemi, who founded the association in 2005 with the support of her husband.“Now the situation is a bit better it’s time we claimed our liberal values and live like normal human beings…Theater is a medium to engage people and show them a new world.”
As well as staging plays, the organization devotes much of its time to training young women in theater, giving them a sense of purpose in their daily lives. Hashemi says the show gives them an opportunity to visit different parts of the country and abroad and helps them develop broader cultural values.
Most of the theater groups in Afghanistan don’t receive any support from the state, instead surviving on minimal material assistance from overseas, including through invitations to international theater festivals.
The lack of financial support, though, doesn’t seem to be deterring young people from getting involved – or from using theater to try to change their own destinies. It isn’t about entertainment, Hashemi says. “It’s an alibi for avoiding the unbearable pain of past and present.”
Sanjay Kumar blogs at Indian Decade.